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February 2016

Slavery & Empire: The Destruction of Whydah

“All the Countries near the Sea side, which the King of Dahome could possibly get at, are not only conquered, but also turned into Desolation.”

British slave-trader William Snelgrave recorded accounts of his various voyages and detailed of the daily lives of Europeans and Africans alike in the trans-Atlantic atmosphere of the West African coast.  Among the more notable and historically-important anecdotes he related is the rising Empire of Dahomey and its utter destruction of neighboring polities: 

A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave-Trade (1734)

By William Snelgrave

Book I: Containing an Account of the Destruction of the Kingdom of Whidaw, or Fida; the Author’s Journey to the King of Dahome’s Camp; with several other remarkable Particulars.

For the better understanding of the following Relation, it is necessary to prefix some Account of the late State of the Country of Whidaw, before the terrible Destruction and Desolation thereof, in the Month of March 1726-7.

The pre-Dahomey West African coastal states (ca. 1500-1720s) practiced extensive agriculture, herding, and internal trade so complex and highly-developed that regular market fairs in Allada and Whydah were often larger than those in contemporary Amsterdam.  While kings possessed theoretically absolute power, important and influential noblemen and popular custom both tremendously limited royal rule.  Rulers taxed production and trade while also demanding corvee labor in the royal fields.  Kings exercised monopoly rights over the slave trade, either absolutely monopolizing it or claiming the right of first sale. 

The Reader then is to observe, That the Sea-coast of this Kingdom lies in 6 Degrees 40 Minutes North Latitude.  Sabee, the chief Town of the Country, is situate about seven Miles from the Sea side.  In this Town the King allowed the Europeans convenient Houses for their Factories; and by him we were protected in our Persons and Goods, and, when our Business was finish’d, were permitted to go away in Safety.  The Road where Ships anchored, was a free Port for all European Nations trading to those Part for Negroes.  And this Trade was so very considerable, that it is computed, while it was in a flourishing State, there were above twenty thousand Negroes yearly exported from thence, and the neighbouring Places, by the English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese.  As this was the principal Part of all the Guinea Coast for the Slave Trade, the frequent Intercourse that Nation had for many Years carried on with the white People (a) had rendered them so civilized, that it was a Pleasure to deal with them…

The Custom of the Country allows Polygamy to an excessive degree…whereby the Land was become so stock’d with People, that the whole Country appeared full of Towns and Villages:  And being a very rich Soil, and well cultivated by the Inhabitants, it looked like an intire Garden.  Trade having likewise flourished for a long time, had greatly enriched the People; which, with the Fertility of their Country, had unhappily made them so proud, effeminate, and luxurious, that tho’ they could have brought at least one hundred thousand Men into the Field, yet so great were their Fears, that they were driven out of their principal City, by two hundred of their Enemies; and at last lost their whole Country, to a Nation they formerly had contemned.  And tho’ this may appear to the Reader very incredible, yet it will sufficiently be illustrated by the following Account…

The last King of Whydah ascended to his throne at the age of fourteen, with a penchant for violence in his temperament and “indolent and lascivious” living.  Whydah’s “Great Men,” powerful landowners and advisors to the King, exploited the sovereign’s weakness, carving out their own zones of “petty tyranny.”  Their attempts to control increasingly-lucrative trade with European powers drew West African kings and warlords into conflict over time.  By conquering enemy states in the interior, selling captives to Europeans as slaves, and quickly incorporating Western weapons into his army, the King of Dahomey destroyed his coastal rivals and monopolized the slave trade.  In the selection below, Snelgrave describes the origins of Dahomey as an interior slave-trading state engaged in what historian Robin Law has called the “slave-raiding mode of production.” 

This common Enemy was the King of Dahome, a far inland Prince, who for some Years past had rendered himself famous, by many Victories gained over his Neighbours.  He sent an Ambassador to the King of Whidaw, requesting to have an open Traffick to the Sea side, and offering to pay him his usual Customs on Negroes exported:  which being refused, he from that time resolved to resent it, when Opportunity offered…

[The King of Dahome] had such Success against his Neighbours, in a few Years, that he conquered towards the Sea Coast, as far as the Kingdom of Ardra, which is the next inland Country adjoining to Whidaw; and then resolved to remain quiet for some time, in order to settle his Conquests… 

The Conquest of Appragah gave the King an easy Entrance into the Heart of the Country; but he was obliged to halt there by a river…For the Pass of the River was of that Nature, it might have been defended against his whole Army, by five hundred resolute Men; but instead of guarding it, these cowardly luxurious People, thinking the fame of their numbers sufficient to deter the Dahomes from attempting it, kept no set Guard…

The King of Whydah remained content to offer sacrifices to the gods, counting on the power of religion overs arms. 

There is a constant Tradition amongst them, that whenever any Calamity threatens their Country, by imploring the Snake’s Assistance, they are always delivered from it.  However this fell out formerly, it now stood them in no stead; neither were the Snakes themselves spared after the Conquest.  For they being in great Numbers, and a kind of domestick Animals, the Conquerors found many of them in the Houses, which they treated in this manner:  They held them up by the middle, and spoke to them in this manner:  If you are Gods, speak and save your selves:  Which the poor Snakes not being able to do, the Dahomes cut their Heads off, ripped them open, broiled them on the Coals, and eat them.  It is very strange, the Conquerors should so far contemn the Gods of this Country, since they are so barbarous and savage themselves, as to offer human Sacrifices whenever they gain a Victory over their Enemies; and Eye-Witness to which I was, as hereafter shall be related…

Upon hearing Dahomey war drums, the King of Whydah immediately fled his capital with as many of his people as were able to follow.  They escaped by canoe to an easily defensible river island,

But a great many that could not have the same Benefit, being hurried on by their Fears, were drowned in the Rivers, in attempting to swim to the Islands lying near Popoe; which was the next neighbouring Country to their own, on the Sea Coast to the Westward; and where they might have been secure from their Enemies, had they escaped.  Moreover, many thousands of these poor People that sheltered themselves up and down the Country among the Bushes, perished afterwards by Sword and Famine…

While Dahomey soldiers burned the capital city, both they and local Europeans stood in amazement at the ease of conquest.  As both sets of imperialists, Dahomeian and European, commiserated over the ongoing destruction of Whydah, race decidedly did not divide them for long.  In the exchanges between the Europeans and the Empire of Dahomey, we see the union of slavery and empire in the process of military conquest and the institutional relegation of conquered foes to the status of slaves—an institutional designation Europeans then transferred to their own colonies in the New World.

Mr. Duport, who was then the African Company’s Governour, told me, that when the Dahome Soldiers, who had never seen white Men before, came to his House, they stood in amaze, and would not venture near him, till he beckon’d and held out his Hand to them.  Whereupon they laid hold on him, and finding him a Man like themselves in all Respects, except Colour, soon laid aside their Reverance; and taking from him what he had valuable in his Pockets, made him Prisoner, with about forty other white Men, English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese, who were served in the same manner…

These Europeans were soon released from bondage, however, at which point Snelgrave arrived in West Africa and recorded their stories of the conquest. As the Dahomey state grew and centralized control over the flow of slaves, overall trade from the “Slave Coast” decreased, leading Snelgrave to lament the rise of such a ruthlessly destructive power.  The example of Dahomey provided Europeans like Snelgrave a convenient opportunity to charge Africans with full moral responsibility for plantation slavery in the Americas, but to modern historians it has provided an example of the “gun-slave cycle” in action. 

As soon as the King of Dahome had conquered Ardra, the Lord of [Jaqueen, a tributary state of Ardra] sent his Submission, offering the usual Tribute he used to pay the conquered King; which was readily accepted.  This shews the Policy of the King of Dahome; for tho’ he had made a terrible Destruction of the Inhabitants of the inland Countries he had conquered from Time to Time; yet he knew his Interest too well, to destroy the People of this Country in the same manner; for having now obtained his Desires, in gaining a free Passage to the Sea-Side, he judged the Jaqueens would be very useful to him, because they understood Trade, and now by their means, he should never want a supply of Arms and Gunpowder, to carry on his designed Conquests.  Moreover these People had ever been Rivals to the Whidaws in Trade, and had an inveterate Hatred against them, because they had drawn almost the whole trade from the Jaqueens, to their own Country.  For, the Pleasantness thereof, with the good Government in former Times, had induced the Europeans to carry on the far greater part of the Trade, at their principal Town of Sabee…

Though some historians have denied anything more than a coincidental relationship between Dahomeian militarism and the slave trade, readers will likely be painfully aware of the careless regard for fellow human beings exercised by all parties involved. 

[Snelgrave is invited by the King of Dahomey to visit court.]

The Country, as we travelled along, appeared beautiful and pleasant, and the Roads good; but desolated by the War, for we saw the remains of abundance of Towns and Villages, with a great quantity of the late Inhabitants bones strewed about the Fields…

We were plagued with a Vermin that greatly annoyed us; and that was such an infinite number of Flies, that tho’ we had several Servants with Flappers, to keep them off our Victuals, yet it was hardly possible to put a bit of Meat into our Mouths, without some of those Vermin with it.  These Flies, it seems, were bred by a great number of dead Mens Heads, which were piled on Stages, not far from our Tent, tho’ we did not know so much at that time.

After we had dined, a Messenger came to us, about three o’clock in the afternoon, from the Great Captain, desiring us to go to the King’s Gate; accordingly we went, and in our way saw two large Stages, on which were heaped a great number of dead Men’s Heads, that afforded no pleasing sight or smell.  Our Interpreter told us, they were the Heads of four thousand of the Whidaws, who had been sacrificed by the Dahomes to their God, about three week before, as an Acknowledgement of the great Conquest they had obtain’d…

His Majesty was in a large Court palisaded round, fitting (contrary to the Custom of the Country) on a fine gilt Chair, which he had taken from the King of Whidaw…

The King had a Gown on, flowered with Gold, which reached as low as his Ancles; an European embroidered Hat on his Head; with Sandals on his Feet…

As part of the ceremonies attending new conquests, the King ordered many prisoners executed as religious sacrifices and the rest were made slaves “for his own use; or to be sold to the Europeans.”  Merchants traded cowrie shell money (imported by Europeans from India) to purchase slaves, most of whom were immediately sent to the coast and from thence to the Americas.  The King then paid soldiers for their kills, adding heads to the growing collection.

We saw many other Persons sacrificed in this lamentable manner, and observed, That the Men went to the side of the Stages, bold and unconcerned; but the Cries of the poor Women and Children were very moving, and much affected the Dutch Captain and My self, tho’ in a different manner:  For he expressed his Fears to me, That the Priests might take it into their Heads, to serve us in the same manner, if they should fancy white People would be more acceptable to their God, than persons of their own colour.  This notion raised some fear in me…Soon after, a principal Man of the Court came and stood by us, and bid the Interpreter ask us, “How we liked the Sight?”  To which we replied, “Not at all:  For our God had expressly forbid us using Mankind in so cruel a manner:  That our Curiosity had drawn us to come and see it; which if we had not done, we could never have believed it…I observed to him, that the grand Law both of Whites and Blacks, with all their Fellow Creatures was:  To do to others no otherwise, than as they desired to be done unto:  And that our God had enjoined this to us on pain of very severe Punishments.”  To which he answered, This was the Custom of his Country; and so he left us…

Snelgrave asks the Linguist if those sacrificed might be better used as slaves or sold to Europeans.

He answered, “It was best to put [the old men] to death; for being grown wise by their Age and long Experience, if they were preserved, they would be ever plotting against their Masters, and to disturb the Country; for they never would be easy under Slavery, having been the chief Men in their own Land.  Moreover, if they should be spared, no European would buy them, on account of their Age…”

Snelgraves then returned to the coast.

The King of Dahome being desirous of the Portuguese Gold, which they bring to purchase Negroes with, his Majesty sent a great many Slaves down to Whidaw, which made Trade dull with us at Jaqueen.  For tho’ formerly great Numbers came to this place, from other Nations now destroyed by the Dahomes, there remains at present only one Country called Lucamee, lying towards the North-East, for the Jaqueens to trade to…

The King of Whydah and his people, entrenched on their barren river island, continued to sell themselves one-by-one into slavery to the residents of Popoe in order to obtain provisions.  The effort remained fruitless and Whydah never revived. 

It seems the King of Dahome is grown exceedingly cruel towards his People, being always suspicious, that Plots and Conspiracies are carrying on against him:  So that he frequently cuts off some of his great Men on bare Surmises.  This…has so soured his Temper, that he is likewise greatly altered towards the Europeans…

From this and the foregoing Account the Reader may observe, that now all the Countries near the Sea side, which the King of Dahome could possibly get at, are not only conquered, but also turned into Desolation, with the Inland Parts, in so terrible a manner, that there is no Prospect of Trade’s reviving there again for many Years, or at least so long as the Conqueror lives.  What little there is, is carried on chiefly at Appah, a place secured from him by a Morass and a River.

While some historians have argued that Dahomey militarism and the slave trade were merely coincidental, the foregoing account strongly suggests otherwise.  From both imperial perspectives offered in his account of the destruction of Whydah—Snelgrave’s British Empire and the King of Dahomey’s new West African empire—the slave trade and imperialism were inextricably linked in daily action and systematic thinking.  Perhaps it is a mistake for historians to conceptually disentangle them whatsoever.  Snelgrave never did.

 

See also:  Law, Robin.  The Slave Coast of West Africa, 1550-1750:  The Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on an African Society.  Oxford:  Clarendon Press.  1991.

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